"Wait a second," said Mickey, pulling off onto the shoulder of the road. He breathed deeply, and shook his head, like a swimmer knocking water out of his ears.
"Could you repeat that?"
"He was brought in unconscious by EMS. It was a massive coronary. Your name was in his wallet as next of kin."
Mickey felt faintly nauseous. "Did he suffer?"
The voice tried to sound reassuring. "If it's any comfort, this kind of heart attack is usually quick, less than a minute."
A minute that felt like hours, Mickey thought. "All right, I'll be right there. Will I find him in the ER?"
The woman's voice said yes, and Mickey hung up. He pulled back out into traffic and raced to the next exit. The news had come as a shock, but he didn't cry. He didn't know how to feel, really. Larry. The old man. Mickey's mother was a breast cancer survivor, so if anyone died early he figured she'd be the one. His father had always been tough as nails. A joke popped uninvited into Mickey's head.
A middle-aged woman drops dead of a heart attack. When she gets to Heaven, God says, "There's been a terrible mistake. You're not due to die for another forty years."
The woman wakes up and goes home. She figures she's got such a long life ahead of her, she might as well look good. So she goes in for plastic surgery face-lift, boob job, tummy tuck, the works. Two months later she's crossing the street and a bus hits her.
This time when she gets to Heaven, she says to God, "What's going on? I was supposed to live another forty years."
And God says, "Mabel, is that you?"
Usually Mickey found comfort in his own jokes, but this one was followed by a wave of guilt. It was no time for humor, yet that was how his mind worked. He couldn't help it.
The ER waiting room was a tense place, the air heavy with suffering. Desperate faces glanced up at anyone passing by, hoping it might be a doctor. Mickey marched up to the admitting desk. When the nurse heard his name, she said, "I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Fellows. This way, please."
She led him through a set of swinging doors and down a corridor lined with gurneys. On one of them a boy with his head swathed in bloody bandages sat upright, softly moaning. They stopped at the swinging doors at the end of the hall, and the nurse stood aside.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Give me a moment, will you?" said Mickey.
"Take your time. The doctor will be right inside whenever you're ready," she murmured.
To settle his nerves, Mickey tried to imagine how Larry's face would look in death. Instead, another joke popped into his head.
God and the Devil were arguing about the fence that separates Heaven and Hell. "Your side's falling down," said God.
"Just look at it."
"So what?" said the Devil.
"We're both responsible for keeping up our side. Mine is perfect."
The Devil shrugged indifferently. "So what are you going to do about it?"
"If you force me to, I'll get a lawyer and sue you," said God.
The Devil only laughed. "Give me a break. Where are you gonna find a lawyer?"
Mickey chuckled, then he caught himself. "Jesus, why can't I act normal?" he muttered.
"Pardon me?" said the nurse.
"Nothing. I'll go in now. Thank you."
Somehow, in his entire thirty-seven years, Mickey had never seen a corpse. The lights in the room had been dimmed. A shape lay under a sheet on a table.
Jesus, Dad. You couldn't give me a heads up?
It was amazing how death stilled the air around it.